National anthem: Advanced, Aboriginal & Fair?

Written in 1879, Australia's national anthem has finally been adapted to reference Aboriginal history. But should we replace it entirely? And what do Aboriginal people think?

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Why change the national anthem?

When Peter Dodds McCormick wrote Australia's anthem, Advanced Australia Fair, in 1878 his world view was heavily influenced by the church and the Department of Education for which he worked most of his life. Against this background, and considering the zeitgeist of the time, it is not surprising that Australia's Aboriginal people, and their timeless history, did not feature in his lyrics.

Aboriginal people struggle to connect to an anthem that is exclusive and "find [it] difficult, if not impossible, to sing," as former Victorian Supreme Court judge Peter Vickery puts it. Some Aboriginal sportspeople like Josh Addo-Carr and Cody Walker, and Yorta Yorta soprano Deborah Cheetham, refused to sing it and copped criticism because of it.

This reluctance found its way into Episode 5 of the mini-series Redfern Now where Joel, an Aboriginal teen, struggles to follow the school's direction of singing the anthem every morning.

Recent changes to the anthem

Do you back the call to change the first line of the national anthem to 'we are one and free'?


SMH 14/11/2020; 2,671 votes

One of the lines many Aboriginal people found difficult to accept was:

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;

These lines from the first verse refer to Australia's "young" history, denying the ever-growing age of Aboriginal history.

In 2018 school girl Harper Nielsen got into trouble and sparked a national debate when she refused to stand for the Australian national anthem during school. She took offence with the line "for we are young and free" as its depiction of the country as new, or a young nation.

Momentum to change the anthem grew in 2020 on the waves of the Black Lives Matter movement, with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian supporting a change of words as well.

Finally, on 31 December 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison officially announced the change from "young and free" to "one and free", commencing 1 January 2021, in recognition of Australia's long Aboriginal history, but also the waves of migration and how Australians have united in times of crisis. It was the first change to the anthem since 1984.

Which lines still cause offence?

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;

These two lines from the second verse suggest that the land has no boundaries and can be shared with anyone arriving from overseas, ignoring that more than 250 Aboriginal nations had negotiated their territories long before and were not keen on sharing it with the new arrivals.

A national song should unite all people. But Australia's anthem was written at a time when Aboriginal people were brutally fought and most people thought of them as a race to die out soon.

Is it hard to change the anthem?

No. A prime minister can use their executive powers to change the anthem, as did prime minister Bob Hawke in 1984 to replace "Australia's sons" with "Australians all" in the first line of the first verse and Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2020 to update the first verse.

But: Is it time to rewrite the national anthem entirely to be more inclusive?

Sometimes we feel that we are being punished, undermined, manipulated and assimilated in our own country called Australia. Why do we sing "advance Australia fair"?

— Yalmay Yunupingu, Aboriginal artist and teacher

Anthem alternatives

Singer Judith Durham sought Aboriginal feedback to the national anthem when she was working on rewriting it. "It was alarming to be honest because so many just felt alienated," she says of Aboriginal people's reaction.

Durham consulted Mutti Mutti man Kutcha Edwards to find new words for the national anthem. Here is her suggestion for a more inclusive text:

Australia, celebrate as one, with peace and harmony.
Our precious water, soil and sun, grant life for you and me.
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts to love, respect and share,
And honouring the Dreaming, advance Australia fair.
With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance Australia fair.

Australia, let us stand as one, upon this sacred land.
A new day dawns, we’re moving on to trust and understand.
Combine our ancient history and cultures everywhere,
To bond together for all time, advance Australia fair.
With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance Australia fair.

Australia, let us strive as one, to work with willing hands.
Our Southern Cross will guide us on, as friends with other lands.
While we embrace tomorrow’s world with courage, truth and care,
And all our actions prove the words, advance Australia fair,
With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance Australia fair.

And when this special land of ours is in our children’s care,
From shore to shore forever more, advance Australia fair.
With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance ... Australia ... fair.

To give Judith some feedback on her new lyrics, please contact Michele Morris at [email protected].

The Recognition in Anthem Project

In early 2017, former Victorian Supreme Court judge Peter Vickery founded the Recognition in Anthem Project, a not-for-profit organisation with a mainly Aboriginal committee. Vickery slightly changed verse one (replacing "young" with "one") and completely rewrote verses two and three.

The new verse two addresses the Uluru Statement From the Heart's call for a truth-telling process. It honours Aboriginal peoples' occupation of the land, their culture and heritage, and declares a peaceful walk together towards reconciliation.

The rewritten third verse celebrates the Australian value of mateship and looks to the future when the land is shared by new generations to come, based on democratic principles.

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are one, and free.
We've golden soil and wealth for toil, our home is girt by sea.
Our land abounds in nature's gifts, of beauty rich and rare.
In history's page, let every stage, Advance Australia Fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing, Advance Australia Fair.

For sixty thousand years and more, First Peoples of this land
Sustained by Country, Dreamtime told, by word and artist’s hand.
Unite our cultures from afar, in peace with those first here,
To walk together on this soil, respect for all grows there.
From everywhere on Earth we sing, Advance Australia Fair.

In times of drought and flood and fire, when all but hope is gone,
Australians join with helping hands, and wattles bloom again.
Tomorrow may this timeless land, live for our young to share,
From red-rock heart to sun-filled shore, our country free and fair.
Beneath the Southern Cross we sing, Advance Australia Fair.

Australia's history's black

Following is another alternative version of Advance Australia Fair, written by a reader of the Koori Mail newspaper and offering the Aboriginal perspective.

Aboriginals, we can't rejoice for we are not quite free,
Those golden soils that once were ours now prohibited to you and me.
Once flourishing with nature's gifts given so abundantly.
With deep regret we can't forget our life in misery.
With saddened voices we proclaim
Australia's history's black.

Before they came and brought us down we roamed this country wide.
Nurturing land through Dreaming Lore we walked with strength and pride.
Our spirits won't be broken now, our light burns bright today
We will move on from strength to strength the Aboriginal way.
With saddened voices we proclaim
Australia's history's black.

All is not lost we have a flag defining unity,
Black, red and yellow lead the way for all the world to see.
We flaunt our colours with great pride boosting our self-esteem,
With deadly passion we insist we will pursue the dream.
With saddened voices we proclaim
Australia's history's black.

Invasion Day

Clem J Collier, "a Whitey who has empathy", found new lyrics for the national anthem with regards to Invasion Day:

They came and took our land away and they won't give it back.
Upon a pole they hung this cloth they call the union jack.
They've raped our land & poisoned it all in two hundred years.
We loved the land but now it dies we watch it through our tears.
You can't eat coal iron ore or gas so leave it where it is.

Australians want a republic so they'll divorce the Queen
Who only comes here now & then so she can say "I've been"
So come on now change is in the air show indigenous that you care
And have a heart then we all can sing "Advance Australia fair"
So have a heart then we all can sing "Advance Australia fair".

Thank you Clem for sending me your version of the anthem!

Aboriginal anthem stings rugby league fans

Non-Aboriginal people can become very racist when the national anthem is sung in an Aboriginal language. When "Advance Australia Fair" was sung first by a member of the Eora Nation (Sydney region) and then in English at the annual State of Original rugby league series, some whitefellas made comments such as "In Australia we speak ENGLISH. Deal with it or piss off I say."

This only goes to show the entrenched, yet hidden, racism in much of Australia.

Here's a video of the event:


View article sources (10)

[1] 'Peter Dodds McCormick', Wikipedia, retrieved 16/9/2019
[2] 'National anthem the cause of inexcusable hurt but it's simple to fix', SMH 14/9/2019
[3] 'Australian Politicians Threaten Schoolgirl Over National Anthem Protest', NY Times 13/9/2018
[4] ''We are one and free': Australia's national anthem to change in attempt to recognise Indigenous history', The Guardian 31/12/2020
[5] 'We are 'one', not 'young': Change to national anthem proposed', SMH 13/9/2019
[6] 'A Keynote Speaker: Human Rights and Social Justice Award', Yalmay Yunupingu 24/6/2014
[7] 'Seeking a new anthem', Reconciliation News 8/2009 p.10
[8] 'Australia's history's black', Koori Mail 410 p.24
[9] Personal email, 2/3/2015
[10] 'Aboriginal Anthems', pol.neilennis.com/index.php/aboriginal-anthems/, retrieved 18/2/2013

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, National anthem: Advanced, Aboriginal & Fair?, <https://stage.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/national-anthem-advanced-aboriginal-fair>, retrieved 16 July 2024

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